I WALKED OUT. What else could I do after I made a fool of myself. Again! Granted I have every right to be upset after he stood me up. But the reason I’m angry has nothing to do with him blowing me off, but with the reason. Or what I thought was the reason. The entire hour I waited for him at the diner, I pictured him having sex with the floozies from Platinum. And the longer I thought about it, the angrier I became.
So when he breezed into the Windy City Chronicle, expecting all to be forgiven because he’s the Chicago Outlaws’ golden boy, the fire I’d been stoking all morning burst into flames. He didn’t help matters when he railroaded me into going to lunch with him. Sure, I went along. What else could I do with my boss pushing us out the door? But when he suggested I should start the interview like he’d done nothing wrong, I went off like a firecracker, not stopping to think about the inappropriateness of such questions or the consequences of my action.
After the stunt I pulled, I’m sure to lose my job. Doubt Mr. Bartlett will keep me after failing to deliver not one, but two interviews. How could I have acted so irresponsibly?
Hoping to escape his notice, I creep into the newspaper office. But as soon as I step in the reception area, my name’s called. “Perkins. Get in here.” No help for it. I’ll have to face the music. I’m not going gentle into that good firing, though. I’m going to take it on the chin. With my head held high, I walk into Mr. Bartlett’s office and shut the door. I’ll be damned if I let that little pipsqueak, Randy, witness my defeat.
“Back so soon?” Mr. Bartlett asks, chomping on his cigar.
“How did it go?”
Before I have a chance to answer, his phone interrupts us, and he jabs the speaker button. “Yes.”
“Chief.” Dotty, the receptionist. She likes to call him chief. “Mr. Mathews is here again.”
“Tell him to come on back.”
“Roger that.” Did I mention she used to be in the military?
Seconds later, Ty Mathews walks in Mr. Bartlett’s door, hair all windblown. He must have run all the way to get over here so fast. “There you are. I thought you’d wait while I had them box our lunch to go.”
Huh? No idea what he’s talking about. But since it’s a reprieve from my getting fired, I snatch at the lifeline. “Sorry.”
“I get it.” He smacks his forehead. “You were so eager to get your boss’s approval to cover the Outlaws visit to the Boys and Girls Club that you rushed back to your office.” He glances at Horace Bartlett, flashing a bright smile that would put the sun to shame. “It’s a promotion event. Some of the Chicago Outlaws will be tossing a few balls to the kids.”
“And the press is invited?” Mr. Bartlett’s voice rises with excitement. Of course he’s thrilled. It’s the kind of feel-good, human interest story our subscribers eat up with a spoon and go back for seconds.
“When and where?”
“Four o’clock, the Lamont Boys and Girls Club.”
Lamont is an inner-city neighborhood where some of the poorest residents of the city live.
Mr. Bartlett picks up his phone, punches some numbers. “Peter, you doing anything this afternoon?” A couple of seconds’ pause. “Never mind that. The Chicago Outlaws will be at the Lamont Boys and Girls Club this afternoon. Get over there and snap a few pictures. Starts at four.” He hangs up. “The photos will go great with Perkins’s article.”
What article? There isn’t going to be an article, not after the way I embarrassed myself at the restaurant. “About that, Mr. Bartlett.”
Mr. Bartlett’s phone buzzes. Again. “Yeah?” He answers.
“There’s a delivery guy here,” Dotty says. “He’s got some food for Mr. Mathews.”
Ty rubs his hands together. “Great. I’m starved. Horace? You don’t mind if I call you Horace, do you?”
The cocky quarterback is sure to suffer a setdown. I’ve heard not even Mr. Bartlett’s wife calls him by his first name.
“Of course I don’t mind,” Horace says.
My jaw drops.
“Great. Well, MacKenna got the great idea to conduct the interview here rather than the restaurant. That place’s great, but it’s too public. People are always stopping by to get my autograph.” He pounds his new best bud on the back. “You understand, don’t you, Horace?”
“Absolutely.” Beaming a wide smile, Mr. Bartlett throws open his office door. “Feel free to use the interview room.”
“Will do.” Ty gestures me out. “After you.”
What else can I do but follow him out the door? He saved my bacon, after all. I tag along while he grabs the food from Dotty, winks at her. Turning to me, he says, “Lead the way.”
“It’s, uh, back there.” With him hauling the bags of food, we make our way through the space. He’s big and wide-shouldered, but he maneuvers his way through the narrow aisles with surprising grace.
“Which one’s yours?” His head bobs toward the cubicles.
“This one.” I point to it as we walk by. My cubbyhole houses an old beaten desk, a rickety office chair, an ancient file cabinet and a state-of-the-art laptop. The newspaper might skimp on furniture, but the electronics are first rate.
When we arrive at the glass-enclosed interview room, he plops the bags on the table. I try to help him unpack, but he waves my hand away. “I got it.” He lays out the chateaubriand, veggies, and bread rolls. The aroma of the French cuisine permeates the room, and my stomach growls, reminding me it hasn’t been fed.
A smirk pops up on his face. “Not hungry, eh?”
I frown. If he were any kind of gentleman, he wouldn’t have mentioned it.
From a tall container, he retrieves a bottle of wine that the restaurant was nice enough to decant. All he has to do is pull off the stopper. They even included two wine glasses. Granted they’re plastic, but still they look nice.
Can’t believe he’s being such a gentleman after the way I behaved. Least I can do is apologize. “I’m sorry for . . . the way I acted. Those questions were entirely inappropriate and unprofessional.”
He flashes me that same, bright smile. “MacKenna. May I call you MacKenna?”
“Yes, of course.”
“You were upset about me standing you up. So the questions, while surprising, were a way for you to let off steam. How about we start fresh? You forgive me for not showing up at the diner. I won’t penalize you for the questions. What do you say?” He sticks out his palm.
My mother didn’t raise a fool, so I shake his hand. “Deal.”
For the next while, we dedicate ourselves to the meal. One thing your learn at a farm is to eat when food is put in front of you. Something I forgot at the restaurant. But I’m not stupid enough to pass up on this feast a second time. I chow down until half of my share is gone. When I come up for air, his plate is empty, and he has a happy smile on his face.
“Nice to see a woman enjoy her food.” He salutes me with his wine glass.
“Oh, I eat plenty.” Can he tell by the extra curves? “Comes from working at a farm.”
“Where are you from?”
“Iowa. My dad’s a farmer. I used to milk the cows, feed the chickens. The farm hands did the heavy work, but I handled the egg and dairy business.”
“Did you enjoy it?”
I sip the last of my wine before I answer. “I couldn’t wait to leave. Our land was miles from the nearest town. For months, the only people I’d see were the farm hands, close neighbors, and the kids at school. Winters were the worst.”
“So when it came time to go to college, you chose one in a big city.”
“Yes. I graduated in May from the University of Chicago.”
“But you didn’t start working here until last week.”
He’d paid attention when I told him it was my first week on the job. “Mr. Bartlett hired me before the school year ended, but the journalist I was to replace did not retire until the end of the summer.” He couldn’t afford to pay us both, and I couldn’t afford rent without a salary. So I’d moved in with Marigold and waited tables until two weeks ago. By working through the summer, I saved enough for a security deposit and first month’s rent.
Mr. Bartlett pokes his head out of his office and stares in our direction while chewing on his beat-up cigar.
“My boss’s getting antsy. I better start the interview. You done?” I point to his empty dish and bread basket. The man loves those French baguettes.
“Yes, thank you.”
After I gather the dirty dishes, I walk to the lunchroom, right next door, and toss them in the trash. The leftovers I stick in the fridge.
“You’re saving those for tomorrow?” Ty Mathews asks when I return.
“Hopefully they’ll still be there.”
He frowns. “What do you mean?”
“Last week I brought an extra yogurt. It was gone the next day.”
His eyes narrow. I’m glad not to be the target of that scowl. Bound to leave a nasty burn.
“Somebody took it?” he asks.
Nodding, I pull out my recorder and spiral bound notebook. The latter has seen better days, but it’s still usable. “Ready?”
“You were born in Texas?” I’d performed background research on him. Not much was available, but I devoured what little there was.
“Yes. A small town in the eastern part of the state.”
“And what’s the name of this small town?”
“Doesn’t matter. It no longer exists. The only business in town—a factory—moved its operations south of the border to Mexico. After it closed, people drifted off until only a few residents remained.”
Okay, so he’s not going to tell me where he grew up. “What about your family?”
“I don’t have one anymore. Both parents are gone.”
Another brick wall. “How long have you played football?”
He smiles. “Started when I was ten. A few boys were tossing the ball around during school recess. When it landed at my feet, I picked it up and tossed it farther than their quarterback so I was drafted to play.”
I do a quick calculation. “Was that fifth grade?”
He nods. “Something like that. In high school, I joined the junior varsity team, but after one year they moved me to the regular team. The next season, I became their quarterback. Their starting quarterback.” Grinning, he leans forward to impress upon me the importance of the position, something I failed to understand the day we met.
I grin back at him. “The starting quarterback, huh? You must have been good.”
“I was. My senior year, I took them all the way to the state championship. We won, but the press paid no attention to us.” Another scowl.
“We were only a 1A high school. The press was too busy focusing on the 5A Dallas team. I HATE Dallas.” When he says Dallas, he bares his teeth.
Obviously, a touchy subject with him. I make a note to explore it further.
“But one good thing came out of the championship. The Nebraska State coach was scouting that day. He drafted me for his school.”
“Where, let me guess, you became the starting quarterback in no time.” I curve my lips up on purpose.
He smiles back. “You learn fast.”
We spend another twenty minutes in a convivial back and forth, until it’s time for him to leave for his promo appearance. On our way out, he pauses in the center of the office. “Listen up, everybody.”
A couple of heads pop up from their cubicles. Mr. Bartlett sticks his head out of his office.
“MacKenna Perkins put leftovers in the refrigerator. Chateaubriand. Beef, in case you’re not familiar with the word. She’s looking forward to eating it for lunch tomorrow. If for any reason they’re missing”—his voice lowers, his tone grows gruff—”I will find out who stole it and that person will answer to me. Capisce?”
Dead silence greets him, except for Dotty who quietly pipes up with,”I’m a vegetarian.”
He walks up and nods at her. “Good to know, ma’am.”
I follow him out the door, more embarrassed than I’ve been my whole life.